17 Jan

Haiti – a failed state?

Short Background

By Teresa Bo in


Photo by EPA

When 500,000 slaves revolted against their white colonisers, Haiti become one of the first black republics to gain independence from Europe. Some say it was never forgiven for that historical act. Today it is one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere.

Haiti was the first black republic to gain independence from the Europeans when 500,000 slaves revolted against the white colonisers. Some here tell me that this country was never forgiven for doing such a thing.

One of the first embargoes in history is that against Haiti. The United States did not recognise Haiti until its own slave regime crumbled in the 1860s. France, despite the ideals of its 1789 revolution, would not recognise Haiti until it paid a crushing multi-million dollar indemnity.

Patrick Eli, a Haitian politician, told me that Haiti will always be an example of a failed state because of that precise reason. Slaves did what was unthinkable in other nations at that time.

Violence, corruption and poverty have plagued Haiti’s history since its freedom. It is still the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, corruption is rampant and unemployment is over 70 per cent.

Internal fights for power and an unequal distribution of resources are partly to blame. Up until today, a group of families control the Haitian economy and until now the United Nations presence has not been able to change that. For example, Haiti imports millions of eggs every year. I was told by a source in Port Au Prince that when a group of businessmen tried to breed chickens in the country, the place was set on fire.

France and the United States have always interfered in Haiti’s politics in one way or another – always supporting the internal elite and not the poor majority. When the French left the island after the famous slave revolt, the mulatos (as those of mixed race are known) became the elite. Up until today, that same class division exists between this group and the black population.

In 1992 a Catholic priest preaching liberation theology won the presidency by a 67 per cent landslide. Jean Bertrand Aristide vowed to help the poor and put an end to the enormous inequality in the country.

Within eight months, Aristide was removed from office. The next time Aristide stood for election – in 2000 – he won by an even greater share of the vote. And this was an election internationally certified as fair.

But on February 29, 2004, Aristide was again overthrown. He was accused of corruption and drug trafficking by the US.

So now the country is struggling to build up its institutions again, with the help of the UN and other donor nations. After years of gang-related violence, the security situation has improved but people continue to live in extreme poverty.

The US plan is to develop factories that would generate jobs, so that Haiti could benefit from the Hope II Act that allows the country to export clothes to the US tax- free.

But for many this is a way of turning Haiti into a sweat shop of the United States as most workers earn less than $5 a day. Earlier this year Hillary Clinton visited the island and one of the US-sponsored clothing factories. The owner of the factory is a former member of what is known as Group 184, the civil society group behind the coup against Aristide.

Patrick Eli tells me that these are the people that foreigners feel comfortable with. They speak the same language, use the same clothes and believe in the same ideals.

Generating jobs would certainly help a lot of people – but will it put an end to Haiti’s inequality?

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